“Teenage Dick” is built on a couple of fairly inspired ideas, one of which is to transplant the scheming usurper of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” to the complex social environment of high school and watch him wend his Machiavellian way to power.
But Mike Lew’s play doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of that premise, marred by tonal shifts along its uneven way that diminish its overall impact. Only in the last scenes of a Huntington Theatre Company production directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel does “Teenage Dick” generate a truly powerful dramatic force.
Where “Teenage Dick” is more distinctive and successful is in the way it makes disability a central focus of the story. That decision is further enhanced by the casting of the talented Gregg Mozgala, who has cerebral palsy, as conniving Richard Gloucester, a 17-year-old determined to become senior class president, whatever it takes. (It was Mozgala who conceived the idea of adapting “Richard III” to a high school setting and commissioned Lew to write it.)
Ruthlessly ambitious student politicians have been at the center of films like “Election” (1999), starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick, and TV series like Netflix’s “The Politician,” with Ben Platt. And of course the ostensible adults of HBO’s “Veep” (2012-19) exist in a state of arrested adolescence; there’s more than a whiff of the high school cafeteria in the squabbling and one-upmanship within Selina Meyer’s Oval Office.
In “Teenage Dick,” Richard is currently junior class secretary, but he aspires to the highest elected office for his senior year at Roseland High School. However, he’s got two obstacles in his way: Eddie Ivy (Louis Reyes McWilliams), the current junior class president, a football player, and full-time lunkhead, and Clarissa Duke (Portland Thomas), a devoutly Christian overachiever.
Make that three obstacles: Richard’s disability has rendered him an outcast — “Everyone thinks I’m a freak!” he says bitterly — and that status fuels both his ambition and his willingness to flout the rules. For Richard, political success will equal revenge, and vice versa.
He sets his sights on a dancer named Anne Margaret (Zurin Villanueva) who has experienced a downgrading of her own status after her breakup with Richard’s rival and tormentor Eddie. When Richard begins wooing her, it’s a calculated move to help him achieve the presidency, but it acquires another layer. “What if decency is a viable choice?” Richard muses. Unfortunately, while Villanueva delivers a graceful and affecting performance, and there’s certainly poignancy in the moments when Anne Margaret teaches Richard how to dance, “Teenage Dick” begins to drift and lose momentum as their romance burgeons.
Teenage outsiders who jettison scruples in a bid to ascend the social ladder are not new; viz. “Dear Evan Hansen.” As with “Dear Evan Hansen,” social media, with its ability to magnify personal crisis into public spectacle, plays a prominent role in “Teenage Dick.”
Richard’s largely unheeded conscience is his snarky friend Barbara “Buck” Buckingham, played by Shannon DeVido, who uses a wheelchair. DeVido was a crowd favorite at the performance I attended, with good reason. She steals multiple scenes; in a slow-motion sequence when Buck gives Richard the finger, DeVido turns it into the stuff of silent comedy.
As for the spoken comedy in “Teenage Dick,” it’s pretty hit-or-miss. Lew is a clever writer whose tendency to strain for one-liners was evident in his “Tiger Style!,” which Stuelpnagel directed at the Huntington five years ago. In “Teenage Dick,” Richard speaks in high-flown rhetoric and makes not terribly clever allusions to “Richard III” and other Shakespeare plays (Example: “Is this a ballot I see before me?”). The first time that English teacher Elizabeth York (a very good Emily Townley) orders a student to the principal’s office and refers to it as “the Tower,” it’s funny. The second time, it’s still amusing. By the third, fourth, and fifth time . . .
It’s when Lew resolves to make us shudder rather than laugh that his story is at its most potent, and in the final scene’s chilling portrait of evil triumphant and vengeance complete, we get a glimpse of the play “Teenage Dick” might have been.
Play by Mike Lew. Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Produced by Huntington Theatre Company in association with Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Pasadena Playhouse. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through Jan. 2. Tickets $25-$99. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtheatre.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.